The Halls of Madness

I've been constantly impressed with Darkest Dungeon, how it's grown and sprawled beyond the original concept of the game. How it landed on the PS4 a while ago, and now finally, thanks to dedicated time and effort spent porting it to the Xbox One, the Xbox crew can enjoy one of the best turn-based dungeon crawlers to appear on any platform for a very long time.

But be warned, if you think you're going to play this game and not lose a single character - think again. Darkest Dungeon is a game about failure informing the next line of heroes' successes, victory gained inch by inch and knowing when to push on, and when to run the hell away screaming incoherently and gibbering as madness grasps your character's mind and forces a sonorous soul-bending scream from the depths of their lungs.

Darkest Dungeon is a game that oozes atmosphere, from the moment the title animation rolls and the sound of the beautiful narration provided by Wayne June as the game's Narrator slithers forth to explain a tale of riches to rags, and the eventual ruin of your family estate as it has been wrapped in the arms of dark Lovecraftian-style entities that permeate the very stone itself.

It's Rogue-like in design, where failure can lead to death and madness is just around the corner with every single step you take. Yet it is a fair game, a game that can reward your bravery just as much as it can brutally punish your foolishness.

To play Darkest Dungeon properly you must conquer the one thing that many games provide for you, a feeling of safety, of a blanket ready to wrap you in its warm embrace as you thunder nigh-on unstoppable from one encounter to the next. Not here, your torch burns low, your character's minds crack and fray as the unimaginable horrors slither out before them and your most stalwart heroes have their mettle and sanity tested in ways that can break them, or give them such resolve as to allow you to conquer a perilous mission, turning the jaws of death aside at the last moment.

Once you understand that there's no shame in retreat, that failure isn't a bad thing in Darkest Dungeon, you can get ahead in the game. During my time spent with it, running away from a dungeon that's going bad, where a total party kill is a definite possibility became the normal response. Sure, you get characters who become stressed out and have more mental strain because they failed to do the thing they set out to do, but they're ALIVE and that's the most important thing.

Take up your sword, hero...

Darkest Dungeon is a beautifully atmospheric side-on animated hack and slash, dungeon crawler that lets you assemble a party of four stalwart heroes. You begin your journey in a Hamlet that you can eventually restore and build-up to accommodate new buildings and new features to allow you to survive that much longer. Here you'll recruit your heroes from a roster in the Stage Coach, which initially starts out pretty thin with only a few members and low-rank heroes to choose from.

You'll have a ruin of a place, slick with crumbled down hand-drawn architecture that drips a gorgeous art style in every single screen.

You'll have a roster of 4 heroes to play with, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, vices, virtues and various random traits. Not all traits are good either, some are downright dangerous and can be the line between victory and defeat.

Your first foray into the Darkest Dungeon will likely be a short one, and one that not all those heroes will come back from unless you play it safe and retreat if things go bad.

Note: Darkest Dungeon has a bunch of optional settings that you can enable to make the game easier/harder as you like. Even with all the options un-tagged the game is never transformed into Easy Mode, so don't be afraid to experiment to find a set that works for you.

From the Hamlet you'll go into the setup portion of your journey, the outfitting of your party, where you must spend your gold to equip them with food, torches, bandages, and other sundries that you think you might need. Do you take a few shovels to clear the road ahead, or do you skimp on those things to take a couple of extra torches for when the light dies and you're left to the mercy of the darkness?

There's a diverse roster of characters to choose from, from the Plague Doctor, Tomb Robber, Crusader and so on to the Vestal and more so it's vital that you make sure you have a good balanced party.

Once you're happy with the location you're going to explore, chosen your roster, and ensured that you're prepared with all the goodies you might need ... then it's time to delve.

2D Terror

You explore the dungeon by navigating the map on the right, choosing a direction your adventurers wish to go and then using the left stick to traverse the 2d main game window. It's a system that works remarkably well and allows for some gorgeously hand-drawn environments and some splendid animations/design as well.

You'll come across traps, curious (objects you can interact with), and monster encounters as you traverse the various tunnels, corridors, rooms, and locations of the randomly created map. You are given a simple quest objective to begin with, usually complete 100% of room battles, or scouting the area, where you only have to explore a number of rooms. Usually 90% or so.

Traps can be disarmed, curious can be pilfered (be warned, there are some things in the dungeons that will drive your character utterly mad).

All the while you explore, you get hungry, your torch burns lower and lower. You can let it go out completely, giving the monsters and denizens of the dungeon a serious boost. The rewards are better... the danger is higher.

Or you can burn a torch to keep your light level high and make things easier on yourself.

Injury can happen, a trap can slice up a character badly. Are they bleeding, did you take bandages with you? Or do you have a healer who can staunch the flow of blood?

Injury in Darkest Dungeon doesn't just come from wounds, it comes from the erosion of your heroes' sanity as they explore deeper and deeper, further and further. The darker it gets, the more stress they accumulate. The more stress you have, as shown by the white bar, the more your character will be susceptible to having their will/resolve/mind tested against the terrors before them.

Some will break...

Some will grow stronger and gain bonuses in combat and urge their companions on.

Some will get so stressed that they die of a heart attack, this only happens if you manage to fill your stress bar twice. It's rare as long as you're careful and don't rush in blindly.

Shadwell (I named him that) my stalwart ranged damage dealer suffered some serious stress thanks to a combination of monster battles, the dungeon, and a curio. He ended up becoming a total kleptomaniac and from that point I'd lose control of him whenever there was some loot to be explored, he'd grab it and giggle madly.

To ARMS, the Shadows Live!

Suddenly out of nowhere a brutal group of enemies appears, they loom out of the shadow before you, claws and blades at the ready. Your life is but a single candle flame, ready to be snuffed out, it's time to FIGHT!

Combat in Darkest Dungeon comes thick and fast, with encounters happening when you least expect it, but rest assured they're pre-set locations in the dungeon and some can be avoided if you're able to scout ahead on the mini-map. Pick and choose your battles carefully and you might just make it.

From this point on the game switches to Turn Based combat, with heroes and monsters taking turns to try and put each other in the ground.

You have a variety of abilities at your disposal for the elimination of threats, and you'll need to use them wisely. Some can only affect a certain range of enemies, some work against groups, others are single target and the information on offer is simple and effective at communicating what they do and what they affect.

Combat is fast, brutal and decisive. You can retreat (from some) battles, unless you activate the option that lets you successfully escape from all battles. It's a viable tactic and limping back to the Hamlet with some reward rather than watching everyone die is a valuable lesson to learn.

There's also a rush of adrenaline, kind of like Dark Souls, knowing that the last blow you deliver to the final enemy could be the winning one ... or XCOM-like watching a bad situation turn around thanks to some mysterious RNG goddess who favours you suddenly and you snatch victory from the very jaws of doom.

It's animated in a fantastic style with lots of 2d movement and combat attacks having visceral and meaty animations. You know you've been hit by a wicked slice in this game, and you know you've delivered a punishing blow.

You can also use items during combat on your turn, bandages for staunching the flow of blood, and even grenade-like consumables for putting more hurt on the enemy.

There's a lot more to the combat system than this of course, there are positions that your heroes like to be in in your roster and there are positions they prefer to attack. All of this can be seen on their character sheet, which is accessed with a single press of a button.

We survived, barely...

If you play your cards right victory is possible, even at the beginning, you just need to be careful how you explore and how you battle. If you succeed you're given the option of leaving the dungeon with your current spoils and so on. You can stay if you like and explore some more if there's rooms left to check out, though remember, this isn't a game where you're rewarded for rushing to level up and so forth.

Inch by inch victory can be assured, those who rush in will swiftly find that death waits with open jaws just at the edge of every shadow.

So, you go back and now you earn some resolve XP, some money and loot.

Back in the Hamlet you can read about how the adventure went, check out any new buildings that might have unlocked (they open as you progress through the dungeons) and fill out your roster with new heroes who arrive by coach.

You can also spend money and various heirlooms to upgrade your Hamlet. Here it is possible to upgrade a lot of things, better facilities, and even new skills/upgrades/weapons/armour for your heroes. It's all down to careful resource management and knowing that if you lack the money, you need to hit up the dungeon again and try to get some more cash.

You can also put your characters into various places for treatment. Disease, mental breaks, wayward spirits, and more can affect your heroes as time goes on - their minds assaulted relentlessly as they explore the dungeons. Respite is just a few drinks away, or a few hours well spent in quiet meditation.

Each character has an optimal treatment they like, and my Vestal (a priest-like class) would only be assuaged by visiting the brothel option.

Cold unfeeling Death...

Character death will and can happen in Darkest Dungeon, so get used to that concept. Your favourite heroes can and will die, forcing you to hire new ones and so forth. The Hamlet provides a way to upgrade the coach so you can get more experienced heroes turn up, which softens the blow a little, but like in XCOM expect to see the memorial/graveyard fill up.

Save Me?

The game auto-saves and it saves when your characters die, there's no tricking it, or escaping that fate. Be warned, the Darkest Dungeon is hungry for souls.

Atmospheric Exploration

Darkest Dungeon is a game that is thick with atmosphere, the music, the sound design, the art and everything is superb. The one big stand-out feature though is the Narrator, he who brings your journey to life with commentary on your adventure as you continue to poke at the secrets and rooms of the dungeon. Wayne June is ably suited to this role, and along with the likes of Logan Cunningham, and other great video game VAs, Wayne has a gravel-toned voice that echoes with the doom of the crypt with every single quote he makes.

His role as the Narrator is outstanding and walks hand in hand with Anthony Skordi as the Dealer in Hand of Fate 1 and 2. Wayne brings the dungeon's story to life as the game progresses and the written dialogue for the Narrator could not be in better hands.

DLC and more

There's a few bits of DLC for Darkest Dungeon, on the whole it's definitely worth it. The Crimson Court adds a new class and some more buildings, as well as its own set of monsters and storyline. The DLC can be added into the game in bite-sized chunks and it's recommended that you play through without the actual Court until you're familiar with the game. The class, the buildings, they're fine and they might even make things a little easier for you in the long run.

A Worthwhile Adventure

If you can handle the idea of losing beloved (and not so) characters, inch by inch victories and madness soaked dungeon halls filled with unspeakable horrors ready to rend and tear your party to pieces - then you can handle Darkest Dungeon.

It's a brilliant game and one that rewards a longer relationship, whilst it's great for pick up and play style sessions, since adventures rarely take too long (you can have short, medium, long forays into the dungeon) and there's a camping mode for the longer form adventures, there's always time to put it down and come back where you left off.

It's a refreshing take on dungeon crawlers and oozes style and atmosphere. Well crafted, an excellent port and one of the best Turn Based combat systems this side of XCOM.

It has been excellently ported and during my time with it, I experienced nothing in terms of glitches or bugs.